The relief I felt as I went down the staircase at St John's College, Cambridge, would have been an alien emotion to those always in control of their lives. I was tempted to cartwheel across the old college Court. All I had done was convince the director of admissions for history that I was both capable of and anxious to make the change from modern languages. Yet the effects of this one change for me will be enormous.

From the moment I opened my A-level results last summer I felt uneasy. The grades that I had sweated to achieve were what I needed to study French and Italian. So why this sinking feeling? That I was not happy with my choice of course was pushed to the very back of my mind.

Overnight I had become a modern linguist. Suddenly my 'year off' between school and university was not in my hands. From all sides advice was offered: of course I would go to France, Paris was probably the easiest. Of course I would live and work there for as long as possible, it was stupid of me not to get my standard of French as high as possible. As I had never done Italian before, a language course in Florence seemed obvious as well. I also had to understand there was no way my parents could finance my gap year.

I could see the adult reasoning, but it did not make me look forward to my year off. Take France. How was I to spend as much time there as possible while spending as little money as possible? A placement involving homeless people had been suggested a few months earlier and I had successfully applied for a school grant to help to pay the enrolment fee.

What else would I be able to do? Fortunately, one of my older friends had lived in Paris for seven months of his gap year. 'I had the time of my life,' Richard told me. 'The people you'll meet there are incredible]'

Did he speak lots of French? 'No, not really.' Did he spend most of his time with French people? 'No, almost all of them were English, but they were such good fun]' But good fun and English people were not what I was going to Paris for.

However, the idea of sharing a flat in Paris seemed glamorous and romantic. I pictured myself walking by the Seine, being introduced to handsome young Frenchmen. Then I remembered letters Richard had sent me during the first two months of his time in France. They described the problems of finding work, how hard it was to meet new people and his distinct lack of any social life. Ultimately he had had a wonderful trip, but it had taken time for him to settle in. I panicked. I'll be there just long enough to find a life, then I'll have to come home. I decided to put off any decisions about France.

It was already mid-October. Almost two months of my year off had gone and all I had done was start full- time work at a children's clothing shop in London to earn some money. I had planned to go to Italy in the new year. Again I sought advice from friends who had done language courses the year before. Ben and Dominic had had the time of their lives. 'I am so envious of you going,' said Ben. Dominic also said he would love to go back. But they agreed that in order to have their sort of good time you needed a large amount of money and to enjoy mixing with a lot of ex-public school pupils. I had just spent my sixth-form at Rugby School and was going on to Cambridge. I wanted to get away from the public school crowd.

By December I had picked out the least Sloaney language school and decided to put off the admission date from January to March. In the meantime I would stay with a relative in Paris and look for work. Five days before I was due to leave I still had not booked my flight or started to pack. It was then that it suddenly hit me.

This was my year off in which I was supposed to be doing things that I wanted to do and would not have a chance to do until after university. But I had no burning desire to visit France or Italy, I was simply going there to prepare to study languages. It was then that I realised I did not want to read modern languages anyway.

I wanted to read history. I had always wanted to read history, but had assumed that modern languages were more useful. I had reasoned that if I had made a mistake I could change my degree subject once I had started university. But now my wrong choice of course was affecting my entire gap year.

It was then that I finally admitted what I really wanted to do in the remaining seven months. I wanted to get a round-the-world ticket and travel. My dream was to backpack around Australia and New Zealand, getting short-term jobs in bars and cafes, learning to surf and scuba dive, camp at Ayers Rock, spend time in the rainforests.

Once I had made the key decision to change subjects, everything slotted into place; my time in the clothes shop began to acquire a real sense of purpose. The more money I could save in England, the less I needed to earn abroad.

The large rucksack has now been bought, the camper's sleeping bag borrowed and the flight booked. I have a huge 'To Do' list and not much time left to do it all in, but I am happier than I have been for a very long time. If I had not taken a year off, I would be in my second term at university studying the 'wrong' subject. I had a chance to step back from my life and reassess what I wanted out of it. I should have trusted my gut feeling at the start. I will never make that mistake again.